Sleep paralysis – a condition whereby sufferers wake in the night to find themselves helplessly paralysed, overwhelmed with an impression of a nearby malign force – is both a terrifying experience for its victims, and a recurring concept in art, literature and culture. It’s a shame then that Rodney Ascher’s The Nightmare (2015) squanders the subject in a shallow, messy and frustrating documentary that tends towards the pseudo-intellectual and paranoid rather than a well-balanced and structured enquiry.
Moreover, there is little attempt to contextualise or challenge many of the assertions about the condition that Ascher’s subjects make – which mainly centre around paranormal explanations – either by juxtaposing contradictory interpretations, or by setting the phenomenon in cultural or scientific contexts. Indeed, it’s telling that of all the interviewees, the only one who accepts that sleep paralysis can be explained scientifically is given the least screen time. This is not meant to dismiss the very real experiences and conclusions of the other sufferers, but to lay blame at the foot of a documentarian who seems entirely uninterested at investigating in any depth sleep paralysis as a cultural and scientific phenomenon, or to explore why his subjects are so ready to reject physiological or medical explanations.
This frustration with The Nightmare‘s uncritical consumption of its subjects’ testimonies is compounded by its fixation with reconstructions. These segments, far from being frightening, lend the production a cheap, late-night Sci-Fi Channel feel. Moreover, the sheer, unstructured repetition of anecdotes – endless accounts of the same scary dream with minor variations, retold ad nauseam – offer virtually no insight into the condition, its causes, or the people who experience them. Occasionally, a subject will offer a glimmer of insight into their suffering, but Ascher fails once again to pick up on these clues and draw nuance out of his own narrative. Instead, he prefers to edit the testimonials at random, with no sense of order, juxtaposition or context, losing any meaningful understanding in the process.
Ascher’s debut feature, Room 237, documented fan theories about the meaning of The Shining, ranging from the conspiratorial to the downright baffling. That film compellingly teased out the myriad ways that we all try to make sense out of madness, underpinned by the irony of irrationally obsessing over a film that is itself about irrational obsession. In The Nightmare, Ascher presents a similar group of individuals, obsessed with and tormented by the need to find meaning in irrational experience. But where Room 237 offset irrational claim against irrational claim to create layers of meaning, The Nightmare throws it all at the wall to see what sticks. Unfortunately for the audience, and Ascher’s long-suffering subjects, nothing much does.